Raptors’ VanVleet has your state of the team looking back and ahead to next season

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It’s an awkward dance these end-of-the-year interviews.

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The team is fresh off a season-ending loss. They’ve just had their exit interviews with management and are looking ahead to a little downtime before the off-season workouts begin.

Then they are plopped down at a podium on their way out of the building and asked about their assessment of the season that just came to an abrupt end, and what they see for themselves and their team in the coming season by us media types.

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It’s not ideal circumstances. There are a lot of ‘I don’t know’s’ or ‘You could say that’s.’

Some, like Fred VanVleet have been through this before and are a little more polished.

VanVleet, who basically sets the culture for this club, was a mere bystander for the final two games of the season, but five months from now when the Raptors start ramping up again for the next campaign, he’ll be in the middle of everything .

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And while anything anyone says now has to be viewed with a considerable amount of skepticism, VanVleet doesn’t dabble in hyperbole.

He’s a calls-it-like-he-sees-it kind of guy and based on nothing more than his say-so, the future for this Raptors team is rosy.

“That’s about as much building as we all want to do,” VanVleet said of the development year that turned into something a little bit more.

“It’s weird to be in such an up-in-the-air season where nobody thought you were going to be any good, but you know you are good,” he said. “So, we were playing for a championship, but it was kind of free basketball so to speak. I think coming back with a singular goal in mind will definitely help and let us all fall into our role and be the most effective team we can be.”

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VanVleet does not believe much tweaking is required to take the next step, but it’s clear he would like some sort of upgrade either through the draft of free agency.

“I think we can definitely get better within, without adding anything,” he said. “Whether we add more shooting or a big, that would obviously help, but the team we have right now, if we just played a little bit better and smarter … I think we can use our strengths a little bit better and that’s something we’ ll address as players in the off-season to try to come back (better) next season.”

For VanVleet, coming back better begins with coming back healthier and in better condition to withstand the wear and tear of a heavy-minute season.

VanVleet and teammate Pascal Siakam averaged a league high 37.9 minutes a game this season. VanVleet missed 17 games due to injury. Siakam missed 14.

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VanVleet said it’s on him, and presumably Siakam, to do whatever they can to prepare for those heavy minutes again and hopefully avoid injury.

VanVleet suffered a bone bruise on his right knee in mid-February, an injury that never fully healed. He also suffered a left hip flexor strain in the playoffs that cost him the final two and a half games of the abbreviated playoff run.

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“I’ll continue to work on my body and find different ways to be creative to be better and be more healthy and be strong and be more fit,” VanVleet said. “I take full responsibility for that. It is what it is. I certainly don’t want to be missing any playoff games, but I’m watching a lot of basketball and injuries and happening.”

As for the team, VanVleet likes the progress the organization made this year with a rookie in the starting five in Scottie Barnes and all the young talent coming off the bench.

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“With the group that we have, if we can polish it up and maybe make it more sense for playoff-style basketball, add a couple of pieces of things we might need in certain scenarios that might help. It felt a little tough at times with all the injuries, trying to plug guys in and out. I’ll let management enter the questions in terms of acquiring new players. But as far as what we got, we got a ton of new experience this year and a really good core group of guys that if we get better at what we do and how we play together, we’ll be better next year, for sure .”

Individually, VanVleet remains as confident and secure in his own abilities as he ever has, but admits the bar keeps moving to a new level with each and every successful season.

“I think I’m at that crossroads where like 20 points isn’t a good game anymore,” VanVleet said. “Went from like, underrated, undrafted to overrated like, very fast. So, I gotta start getting outside the box. I gotta start doing things that I’ve never done before. I’ve gotta get uncomfortable. I got to find ways to get better so at least I can say I’ve done everything that I possibly could. There’s still more things that I can explore, personally to get better and I’m looking forward to doing that this summer.”

Listening to VanVleet break down the past season and look ahead to the next makes you wonder why the team ever bothers sending anyone else to that media room.

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